McClendon on Convictions and Pluralism

Last week, I read James Wm. McClendon and James M. Smith’s book “Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism,” it’s a highly recommended book for anyone interested in religious language and rationality, ethics and theology. It is difficult to get through due to his heavey useage of philosophy, espeically JL Austin’s “Speech-Act Theory” but McClendon’s clear writing style helps to make this difficult subject matter more palatable. I was reading it in preparation for my upcoming presentation I’m working on for a Quaker conference in June. Questions of religious relativism and pluralism are certainly on my mind because of this and I have been on the lookout to see what others have said on the subject. One main question I have is “How do other traditions work through and deal with religious pluralism?” I’m recognizing that rationality, and how we make truth claims about our religious experiences and faith are essentially some of the main questions Quakerism now struggles with. That said, I found McClendon’s book somewhat of a dog to get through, but worth the effort (if you want a somewhat briefer read chapters 1, 2, 4 and 6). McClendon was a baptist/free-church theologian of the highest order: his three volume systematic theology is one of the best peace church theological resources we have from the past century. It’s a treasure trove. If you haven’t, please take a chance to read something by McClendon you won’t be disappointed.   Here are a few standout quotes from the book:

Conviction [for McClendon and Smith] means a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction, it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before. ((McClendon and Smith, 1994: 5))

Convictions are the beliefs that make people what they are. They must therefore be taken very seriously by those who have them. This means that to take any person seriously we must take that person’s convictions seriously, even if we do not ourselves share them. If we regard integrity and a certain degree of consistency as important elements in being a person, we should neither expect nor want others’ convictions to be easily changed or lightly taken up. On the other hand, if we have a true esteem for our own convictions, we will want them to be shared in appropriate ways by anyone whom we regard. A certain tension appears here. If persons who hold opposed convictions are to come to share common ones, then some sort of exchange must take place in which the disparate partners communicate with, persuade, change one another in significant ways, so that one or both become significantly different persons in the process. ((McClendon and Smith, 1994:7-8))

Perspectivism – It regards convictional conflict as expected, but not inevitable, fundamental but not ulitmate, enduring but not inherently ineradicable. There are, in this view, common elements among differing sets of convictions, but to discover and use them in resolving conflict requires measures that cannot be limited along convictional lines. Persons or comunities with different convictions will experience, think, and speak about their worlds differently, and these differences will not necessarily be the result of mistakes or character flaws. But neither are they walls or electronic scramblers, making communication, undersanding, or even persusasion among worlds impossible. Or, at least, so claims perspectivism. ((McClendon and Smith, 1994:9))

By theology or theoretics…we mean the discovery, examination, and transformation of the conviction set of a given convictional community, carried on with a view to discovering and modifying the relation of the member convictions to one another, to other (nonconvictional) beliefs helf by the community, and to whatever else there is. ((McClendon and Smith, 1994:184))

12 responses to “McClendon on Convictions and Pluralism”

  1. Frankly, I think the concept of pluralism in faith is quite easy. Christians make it quite complicated, but Hillel put it in the few words we seek in our messages, “do nothing to another that which is abhorrent to thyself, that is the Torah and the rest is commentary.”
    If you think of the story of Fox asking the native in South Carolina, who had never met a European, how he knew right from wrong … the fellow said a small voice inside tells me. “You see,” he told his friend, “God speaks to all of us.” When we argue over the commentary we loose our best chance of hearing God’s voice within us. If we are seeking an orthodoxy in politic or religion (really the same thing) we deafen ourselves to that voice of God in others.

  2. Reading through those 3 volumes for my thesis was one of the greatest decisions I ever made. Somewhere in there McClendon made the comment, “Convictions aren’t so much things we have, but things which have us.” Stating it this way, I think, opens us up to the reality that convictions are omni-dimensional – effected and effecting any dimension of our experience and personality that we can imagine. In this vein, it has helped me to go a step further and posit that salvation (which we also ought to understand as omni-dimensional) is not so much something we have, but something which has us. This has been incredibly freeing for me.

  3. Hey Wess,
    I have read your blog for awhile now and have enjoyed it quite a bit. Having read his Trilogy last semster and been deeply impacted by it I would love to make time to read this book. But I had a question for you and how you think McClendon might answer it after reading this book.
    Often times at my seminary (Mars Hill Graduate School) people say: in order for true dialogue to take place we must be open to conversion. While I am pretty sure I don’t agree with this sentiment, I was wondering how think McC might address this after this book, as well as your own thoughts.

  4. I do not see how anything else than assimilation can defuse religious relativism and political cultural pessimism or multiculturalism and political correctness. Respecting each others backgrounds and territories can, if enforced, which is absolutely not the case now, stop terrorism stemming from fundamentalism. Religious relativism needs to be defused because it is risky, when it causes a shift towards extremism by those living in two (or more) worlds, convoluting their thoughts and deeds, confusing their sense of identity, hence the need for defusing, and stretching their arms, around the world.

  5. @Lorcan Otway: Yes, I agree I don’t think it’s all that hard to understand pluralism in faith, I just have a harder time buying it. Too often there are way too many “Gods” telling us what to do and they aren’t all right. I don’t know about you but I’m not willing to concede that God told Bush that we ought to go to war with Iraq. So the problem is overcoming these deep seeded disagreements about our interpretations of that voice. This is a struggle we know too well within Quakerism. I don’t think we’re all right. And I don’t think this is because I’m chasing after an orthodoxy but the unity of the Spirit.

    I also do think, on the positive side, that God can and does speak through “orthodoxy” if there is such a thing.

    Thirdly, I find pluralism to be under girded by a global market economy that seeks to do away with difference. In global capitalism difference and particularities are bad, and pluralism is good because through plurality we can create mass markets, mass products, and sell things like ipods to kids in Vietnam, Germany, and Alliance Ohio. So in this sense, I see pluralism as a product of a global economy, following after the regimes of power that seek to do away with particularity in the name of marketability.

  6. @mshedden: Thanks for reading. I found your blog not too long ago and your review of the three volumes very nice.

    You’ve offered a great question. I think McClendon would argue that you have to always recognize the possibility of conversion. Being open to it, as if to seek it out may be to strong, but to make oneself vulnerable, to open oneself up to the possibility, is ultimately the stance of weakness that I think even the apostle Paul exemplifies (as one who comes in weakness rather than with a list of philosophical proofs for why his position is absolute).

    On the other hand, a conviction set for McClendon is the kind of thing that wouldn’t be changed (I don’t think) in one dialogue, that would be too radical a shift. Convictions are the kinds of things that when they are changed, the core of the person is changed. I think his point is this is really hard to be changed. In fact the core argument of the book is just how one might go about changing a conviction set, something that requires in his mind requires a lot of work and isn’t always successful. Also, keep in mind, he wrote this book with James Smith, a friend of his who is an atheist. One sub-dialogue through this book is how they are able to communicate, and yet just how difficult it is for them to truly communicate because of their radically different conviction sets.

    Anyways, I’m sure you get the point. It’s worth checking out. It’s the kind of book I really need to process a bit more, especially the second to last chapter where he really deals with how a conviction is justified.

  7. 1. What is the difference between “orthodoxy” and fundamentalism?
    2. How can we keep fundamentalism facing political correctness and cultural pessimism on the political left?
    3. Don’t pluralism, globalism (global economy), multiculturalism and religious relativism do away with particulars, unique individuals and groups all having their idiosyncratic “orthodoxy” that should be respected instead of mass-marketed?

  8. @Ron – thanks for the comment:
    1) In my thinking orthodoxy and fundamentalism are not the same. Fundamentalism is a (militant) style of holding to one’s views, a sensibility or an attitude of approach. Fundamentalism tends to be focused on an absolute foundation of knowledge that cannot be overturned. Orthodoxy is more difficult, I think it is tradition specific. Every group and community has their own orthodoxy, and therefore every group has their own fundamentalists. Orthodoxy simply means “right thinking,” or the courts of appeals for a group, whereas you might think of fundamentalism as “my way is the only way of ‘right thinking’” and a court of appeals not only for our group but for everyone, whether they know it or not.

    2) I don’t think I understand what you’re asking, could you clarify?

    3) Yes, I agree with your statement, and I think I said as much above, or at least that’s what I was getting at.

    Thanks again.

  9. All this is fine enough if your interest is in sociology of religion or civil religious ethics.

    But the fundamental Quaker stance is that God is available to answer our sincere questions and genuine needs.

    God is not necessarily available to settle your questions about some other person’s convictions and whether or not said person is justified in having them. God is available to give you your daily bread (and sometimes a little peanut butter on it; thank you God!) That bread can be spiritual and intellectual nourishment too, not merely the physical sort.

    Can you really see how the mote got into Bush’s eye? (That must be, I admit, one fairly large mote!) But if your spiritual vision isn’t showing you a way to remove it (& mine isn’t either) it may not be a task we can or should seek to perform.

    I don’t need to justify my certainty that God doesn’t tell his friends to bomb foreigners, any more than he tells people to murder their neighbors–although what Jesus says about the nature of God makes it plain enough. I don’t need to control the leadership of the country I live in; when we deserve sane leaders we’ll have them and meanwhile we’ve evidently been weighed in the balance & found deserving of a government of flakes & thugs, alas! But the Kingdom continues to govern, beyond and through all this human absurdity!

    If thee is appointed to lead people off from false & unnourishing forms of religion, that’s different–but that seems to be like challenging a kzin to a fight–a formal challenge is not required; one just screams & leaps… Get up on that pew & givem heck!